The Marshall Protocol and other fairy tales

True to form, Dr. John Cannell has published yet another wonderfully insightful Vitamin D Newsletter.

One item caught my eye, a response to a question about the Marshall Protocol. I, like Dr. Cannell, was inundated with questions about this so-called protocol, which amounts to little more than the unfounded speculations of a non-physician, actually someone not even involved in health care.

In all honesty, I blew the whole issue off after I read Dr. Marshall’s rants. They smack of pure quackery, though from somebody who clearly has a command of scientific lingo. To Dr. Cannell’s credit, he took the time and effort to construct a rational response in the latest issue of the newsletter. I reproduce his response here:

Dear Dr. Cannell:

I understand Dr. Marshall conducted a study and found vitamin D is bad for you. What kind of study did he do?

Mary, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dear Mary:

I have been inundated with letters asking about Professor Marshall’s recent “discovery.” Some have written that to say they have stopped their vitamin D and are going to avoid the sun in order to begin the “Marshall protocol.” The immediate cause of this angst is two publications, a press article in Science Daily about Professor Marshall’s “study” (which is no study but simply an opinion) in BioEssays. Dr. Trevor Marshall has two degrees, both in electrical engineering. Before I begin, I want to again remind you that I am a psychiatrist who works at a state mental hospital. In my duty to full disclosure, I must say that I have known a lot of psychiatrists in my life and a few electrical engineers. If I knew nothing else of a disagreement between two people but their professions, I would believe the electrical engineer, not the psychiatrist.

In reading his two articles, Dr. Marshall’s main hypotheses are simple. (1) Vitamin D from sunlight is different than vitamin D from supplements. (2) Vitamin D is immunosuppressive and the low blood levels of vitamin D found in many chronic diseases are the result of the disease and not the cause. (3) Taking vitamin D will harm you, that is, vitamin D will make many diseases worse, not better. If you read his blog, you discover that the essence of the Marshall protocol is: “An angiotensin II receptor blocker medication, Benicar, is taken, and sunlight, bright lights and foods and supplements with vitamin D are diligently avoided. This enables the body’s immune system, with the help of small doses of antibiotics, to destroy the intracellular bacteria. It can take approximately one to three years to destroy all the bacteria.” That is, Dr. Marshall has his “patients” become very vitamin D deficient.

Again, Dr. Marshall conducted no experiment and published no study. He wrote an essay. He presented no evidence for his first hypothesis (sunlight’s vitamin D is different than supplements). From all that we know, cholecalciferol is cholecalciferol, regardless if it is made in the skin or put in the mouth. His second hypothesis is certainly possible and that is why all scientists who do association studies warn readers that they don’t know what is causing what. Certainly, when low levels of vitamin D are found in certain disease states, it is possible that the low levels are the result, and not the cause, of the disease. Take patients with severe dementia bedridden in a nursing home. At least some of their low 25(OH)D levels are likely the result of confinement and lack of outdoor activity. However, did dementia cause the low vitamin D levels or did low 25 (OH)D contribute to the dementia? One way to look at that question is to look at early dementia, before the patient is placed in a nursing home. On the first day an older patient walks into a neurology clinic, before being confined to a nursing home, what is the relationship between vitamin D levels and dementia? The answer is clear, the lower your 25(OH)D levels the worse your cognition.

Wilkins CH, Sheline YI, Roe CM, Birge SJ, Morris JC. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low mood and worse cognitive performance in older adults. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2006 Dec;14(12):1032-40.

Przybelski RJ, Binkley NC. Is vitamin D important for preserving cognition? A positive correlation of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration with cognitive function. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2007 Apr 15;460(2):202-5. Epub 2007 Jan 8.

These studies suggest that the low 25(OH)D levels are contributing to the dementia but do not prove it. Only a randomized controlled trial will definitively answer the question, a trial that has not been done. So you will have to decide if vitamin D is good for your brain or not. Dr. Marshall seems to be saying demented patients should lower their 25(OH)D levels. Keep in mind, an entire chapter in Feldman’s textbook is devoted to the ill effects low vitamin D levels have on brain function.

Brachet P, et al. Vitamin D, a neuroactive hormone: from brain development to pathological disorders. In Feldman D., Pike JW, Glorieux FH, eds. Vitamin D. San Diego : Elsevier, 2005.

It is true that in some diseases, high doses of vitamin D may be harmful. For example, in the early part of last century, the AMA specifically excluded pulmonary TB from the list of TB infections that ultraviolet light helps. They did so because many of the early pioneers of solariums reported that acutely high doses of sunlight caused some patients with severe pulmonary TB to bleed to death. Thus, these pioneers developed very conservative sun exposure regimes for pulmonary TB patients in which small areas of the skin were progressively exposed to longer and longer periods of sunlight. Using this method, sunlight helped pulmonary TB, often to the point of a cure. Furthermore, it is well known that sunlight can cause high blood calcium in patients with sarcoidosis. In fact, sarcoidosis is one of several granulomatous diseases with vitamin D hypersensitivity where the body loses its ability to regulate activated vitamin D production, causing hypercalcemia.

Cronin CC, et al. Precipitation of hypercalcaemia in sarcoidosis by foreign sun holidays: report of four cases. Postgrad Med J. 1990 Apr;66(774):307-9.

Furthermore, although medical science is not yet convinced, some common autoimmune diseases may have an infectious etiology. I recently spoke at length with a rheumatologist who suffers from swollen and painful joints whenever he sunbathes or takes high doses of vitamin D. As long as he limits his vitamin D input his joints are better. To the extent vitamin D upregulates naturally occurring antibiotics of innate immunity, sunlight or vitamin D supplements may cause the battlefield (the joints) to become hot spots. I know of no evidence this is the case but it is certainly possible.

However, If Dr. Marshall’s principal hypothesis is correct, that low vitamin D levels are the result of disease, then he is saying that cancer causes low vitamin D levels, not the other way around. The problem is that Professor Joanne Lappe directly disproved that theory in a randomized controlled trial when she found that baseline vitamin D levels were strong and independent predictors of who would get cancer in the future. The lower your levels, the higher the risk. Furthermore, increasing baseline levels from 31 to 38 ng/ml reduced incident cancers by more than 60% over a four year period. Therefore, advising patients to become vitamin D deficient, as the Marshall protocol clearly does, will cause some patients to die from cancer.

Lappe JM, Travers-Gustafson D, Davies KM, Recker RR, Heaney RP. Vitamin D and calcium supplementation reduces cancer risk: results of a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun;85(6):1586-91.

I will not write again about Dr. Marshall’s theories. No one in the vitamin D field takes him seriously. Personally, I admire anyone willing to swim against the tide and raise alternative theories. I have done the same with influenza and autism. However, I agree with the New York Times, An Oldie Vies for Nutrient of the Decade and Jane Brody’s conclusion, “In the end, you will have to decide for yourself how much of this vital nutrient to consume each and every day and how to obtain it.” I agree. You will have to decide for yourself.

John Cannell, MD
The Vitamin D Council

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144 Responses to The Marshall Protocol and other fairy tales

  1. Chris says:

    The simplest measure of whether the MP protocol works would be evidence of the serum measures that Are outlined on the website:

    “laboratory tests – Various tests are expected to come in range:
    return of ACE, CRP, triglycerides, ALP to low end of normal
    increase in % lymphocytes, back into the normal range
    1,25-D at 25-35pg/ml measured over a six-month interval
    signs of inflammation resolution on CT and MRI imaging”

    Pre and post testing would be a good way to see if this works over the short, medium and long term. If the protocol really works, then this should prove it. My feeling from reading the site is that there is little information about the ending of the protocol i.e. when one might expect to be off it. In all the testimonies I read, not one indicated that they were off the protocol and now better. At best, I would say the lack of published evidence (self-report or otherwise) suggests that there is no end to the protocol unless you are one of the people who ‘didn’t see it through’. I am conscious the medical profession can sometimes be slow to accept innovation, but the MP has been around for a long time, so if the protocol really worked then there would be evidence, and more readily accepted by practitioners. Please Professor Marshall – if it really works, then publish the results. Sick people need more than just hope, they need some evidence too! I can’t risk damaging my health more by adopting a protocol that could make me worse in the long run.

  2. peter says:

    I have CFS/ME/FM, hypothyroidism & other chronic illnesses, I joined their group & forum etc, applied for & attempted to do the MP about 5 to 6 years back. I bought the sunglasses, photocopied dozens of pages of info & gave all the relevant info to my GP & my Immunologist etc. I was told by the MP people to but the information books,, DVD’s etc. I sent my payment of nearly $400.00 to their company. I never received anything at all from them. I sent dozens of emails to the company & to the so called nurse in Australia for months & months & was totally ignored. The other people in the group on the forums doing the MP did not have a clue about anything medically or anything else it seemed, lots had dropped out, some said they had not seen any improvement, some said they had seen some improvement after a couple of years etc etc, but anyone could say that because they were all anonymous. They seemed like a bunch of people who were just sucked in by the scam. I posted my concerns on the forums about not receiving the information products & my posts were quickly deleted, usually within 24 hours.

    In my opinion it is a complete SCAM SCAM SCAM !!!!!!! Being an Australian I had no way of taking legal action against Marshall or his company because they are based in the USA & he lives in the
    USA. So basically I was completely ripped off cold.
    I have had much better success treating my health problems with LOTS of vitamin D & other natural treatments & following the advice of Dr Tent.


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